Tulane football provides connection for donor, cancer patient
NEW ORLEANS – Christian Montano didn’t plan to play football at Tulane.
Jim Calhoun didn’t plan to become a Tulane football fan.
But when the Tulane football team plays Army in West Point, New York on Saturday afternoon, Montano will be the Green Wave’s starting center.
And Calhoun will be in the stands cheering on Montano and his teammates.
Some things are meant to be.
Let’s start with how Calhoun and Montano were brought together, which predates Montano’s arrival at Tulane less than a year ago.
Montano, a native of Orange, Connecticut, started his college football career at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
In the spring of his freshman season he and his teammates took part in a bone marrow mouth swab drive as part of the Be the Match Registry, a program operated by the National Marrow Donor Program.
The purpose of the drive is to identify potential donors for cancer patients who need a bone marrow transplant for treatment. It was started to help former Brown offensive lineman Lawrence Rubida, who was diagnosed with caner in 2004 and died in 2005.
The drive was especially meaningful to Montano, who lost both of his maternal grandparents and his paternal grandfather to cancer. His maternal grandmother was the most recent to pass away “about a month after I did the bone marrow mouth swab.”
After Montano underwent the mouth swab more than two years passed without him hearing back from the organization.
That wasn’t surprising because, as Montano said, “The chance of you being selected from the database is less than 2 percent.”
Meanwhile, as Montano was starting his junior season at Brown, some 130 miles to the northwest in Albany, New York, Calhoun passed out and hit his head on a granite counter top and was taken to the hospital.
“That’s how I was diagnosed,” Calhoun said. “That saved my life. My platelets were so low that they said they could have found me in the middle of the night dead.”
He had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, a cancer of the blood.
“It’s normally a children’s cancer,” Montano said.
It can be treated by radiation or chemotherapy until a patient reaches 43 years old. Calhoun was 43½ when he was diagnosed.
“Usually they would just treat it with chemo and it should just go away,” Calhoun said, “but I had such an aggressive form of leukemia that the only way I could survive was to get a bone marrow transplant.”
Calhoun fell on Sept. 2 and the diagnosis was made the next day. When the medical staff informed Calhoun of his status they added, “I hope you’re ready to stay six to eight weeks,” he recalled.
He was moved to another hospital and started chemo three days after his fall.
“They were right on it,” Calhoun said. “They had a plan. They said, ‘We’re going to make you live a happy, healthy life.’”
But that required a compatible donor.
The doctors first looked to Calhoun’s immediate family. He has three sisters, but two were disqualified medically and the third wasn’t a match.
So they had to look elsewhere.
Calhoun asked the doctors how long it might take to find a donor.
“They said it could happen today,” he recalled, “or it could take a year or two.”
Less than two months later, Montano had just arrived at his parents home for Thanksgiving break when his phone rang.
He saw the call was from the Providence area code and figured “It must be one of my buddies and I had forgotten something back at school.”
But when he answered the phone he discovered the purpose of the call was much different.
“They said, ‘this is the Rhode Island Blood Bank. Is this Christian Montano?’” Montano recalled. “I said, ‘yeah it is’, and they said, ‘we think you’re a match for someone for a bone marrow transplant.’ I kind of put my phone down: ‘Oh, my God. This is really happening.’”
It still wasn’t certain that Montano was the ideal match. That required secondary blood testing.
“But by Christmas I knew that I was their best match,” Montano said. “I ended up being the best possible match.”
The decision to go ahead with the transplant was made quickly.
“My parents were super supportive of it,” Montano said. “They said, ‘If you can help someone, of course do it.’ I think once they said go for it, it was an easy decision.”
Meanwhile the news of the match was being delivered via email to Calhoun.
He was resting from his chemotherapy treatment when his wife discovered the email.
“Her screaming woke me up,” Calhoun said. “Jimmy, Jimmy, we’ve got a match, we’ve got a match!”
So Calhoun commuted between Albany and Dana-Farber Hospital in Boston on roughly a weekly basis for his treatment before returning to the hospital for the transplant.
He checked in Jan. 26, 2018 to receive further treatment in preparation for the transplant.
At 5 a.m. on Feb. 1, Montano checked into the same hospital, though donor and recipient were still unaware of each other’s identity.
There are two ways to remove the stem cells, both of which are “equally good ways for the recipient,” Montano said.
One is “they run your blood through a machine and they get all the stem cells out,” Montano said.
But Montano had to do it “the surgical way” because the shot that would be required could have “fired up” his Crohn’s Disease, which forced him to red shirt his first season at Brown.
“They go in through your hip,” Montano said. “You’re under general anesthesia so you’re out. It took about 2½ hours. You wake up and you feel a little bit like you played a game. Your back is pretty sore. Your hip is sore. But I’d recommend anyone to do it. You’re sore for a few days and that’s about it.”
Montano was back in the recovery room by 9:30 a.m. and was released at 4 p.m. after doctors determined he was stable. He spent the night in a hotel across the street and went home the next morning.
Calhoun was waiting in one of the rooms on an upper floor of the hospital while a stranger donated his stem cells. About the time that Montano was being released from the hospital, Calhoun was receiving the stem cells from an IV through “two ports in my chest” in a four-hour procedure.
“It was less painful for me than it was for Christian,” said Calhoun, who remained hospitalized until March 15.
So Montano literally saved Calhoun’s life.
“He said that,” Montano recalled. “That’s still a little bit to process and talk about.”
No contact is allowed between the donor and the recipient for one year after the transplant. All Montano knew about the recipient was that they were “a 43-year-old man.”
One year and two weeks – “about Feb. 15 of this year” – the hospital called “and asked if I would be willing to exchange information with him,” Montano said. “I said of course.”
He gave them his email address, his phone number and his home address “in case he wanted to write something.”
Shortly thereafter Montano received a phone call from a New York area code and figured it was a telemarketer.
“Then I said let me answer it just to see who it is,” Montano said. “I answer it and I hear a kind of quiet voice say, is this Christian Montano? I was like, yeah it is. My name is Jim Calhoun and I was your bone marrow recipient.
“That was kind of emotional. We talked for about 15, 20 minutes. He told me his side of the story, which was pretty cool to hear.”
They talked about meeting, but Calhoun was still “immune compromised” and therefore limited in his ability to travel.
“I said if I was at Brown I could easily drive over and see you, but I’m in Louisiana now,” said Montano, who had graduated from Brown and enrolled at Tulane just weeks before Calhoun’s phone call.
“I was going home for a week in May,” Montano said. “My parents didn’t tell me until the day before I was coming home that they’d planned a thing where he’d come by our house that weekend. We had what we called a celebration of life party. We had some family and friends come by and we hung out by the pool.”
Now, for how Tulane came to be a part of all of this.
The Ivy League has strict limitations on football participation. In addition to not allowing athletic scholarships, it allows only an eight-semester window in which to play four seasons and it doesn’t allow graduates to play football.
Montano, having lost his first season to the Crohn’s Disease, figured out a way to get a fifth football season out of his college career.
“The spring of my true senior year I took off and worked an internship in order to have an extra fall semester,” Montano said.
It seemed like the ideal way to extend his football career, but “I broke my foot in the first game,” Montano said.
It was Brown’s third drive of the game against Cal Poly on a Friday.
“Someone rolled up on my foot and broke my fifth metatarsal,” Montano said.
Montano flew home and “laid in bed all weekend because I couldn’t move.”
“I saw the doctor on Monday and he said, ‘let’s get you in tomorrow for surgery,’” Montano said.
The fracture would be slow healing, especially for a lineman who weighs 305 pounds. Just as Calhoun’s only treatment option was a stem cell transplant, Montano’s only treatment option was surgery.
“I was crushed,” Montano said.
He had run out of time to play at Brown, getting injured in his eighth semester with graduation looming.
“Once you’re done with your academic degree,” Montano said, “you can’t play any more (in the Ivy League).”
But the NCAA does allow five seasons to play four and periodically will grant waivers for a sixth season under extenuation circumstances, usually health related.
Montano knew it would be hard to find a school willing to accept him as a graduate transfer until he had approval for a sixth season so while recuperating from surgery he and Brown’s compliance officer went to work on it.
They spent about a month compiling doctors reports and other information to send to the NCAA to request a waiver for a sixth season of eligibility at whatever school he would transfer to from Brown.
Around Halloween of last year he got approval from the NCAA and was able to look for a new school in earnest.
“Once I got the approval, it kind of opened the door,” Montano said.
And he was a pretty good football player, having earned second-team all-Ivy League honors in his last healthy season.
The new NCAA transfer portal allows student-athletes to register their information in a database that can be accessed by all schools, facilitating a match between a transferring student and a school – not unlike the manner in which donor and recipient can be matched.
Montano was familiar with Tulane having had some interest in its academics it when he chose Brown while in high school.
He first looked at some CAA schools such as Villanova and Richmond, but neither of them had the right academic program for the soon-to-be graduate in finance, who is getting his MBA in finance specialization at Tulane.
“That was a huge check for Tulane,” Montano said. “A lot of other schools wouldn’t let you get an MBA. You had to get a Masters in education or a Masters in something I really wasn’t too interested in.”
The Green Wave were getting ready to play their 10th game of last season when Montano emailed the football office. Within 20 minutes he got a reply from head coach Willie Fritz’s son, Wesley, who is director of player personnel/recruiting.
“He asked if I had any film I could send down,” Montano said.
He contacted his coaches at Brown and they sent some film of him to Fritz.
At 7 p.m. the younger Fritz son replied to ask Montano if he could talk to the head coach that night.
“Coach Fritz called me and we talked for 15, 20 minutes,” Montano said. “He told me, ‘We’re playing Navy this weekend. Try and watch it. It’ll be on ESPN.’”
The football end of it was also enticing to Montano as Tulane overcame a 2-5 start to win four of its last five games and qualify for a bowl game by beating Navy 29-28 in the regular-season finale at Yulman Stadium.
Montano watched the game with his parents and he noticed that the announcers kept identifying the key Green Wave players as “a freshman, a sophomore, a junior.”
“I think I heard senior twice the whole game,” Montano said. “I thought, ‘wow. This is a young team and they’re in a bowl game. I’m not going to be going into a team that has a lot of new guys on the field.”
When Montano finished the semester and got his Brown degree he came to New Orleans on an official visit to Tulane on the second weekend in December.
“It just felt right,” he said.
It was a pretty easy sell on Tulane’s end as well.
“The first thing was we knew he could handle it academically,” Willie Fritz said. “So that was not an issue with him. Number two, he is a good football player.”
Montano and his parents watched again as the Green Wave defeated Louisiana-Lafayette, 41-24, in their bowl game.
“It was awesome,” Montano said.
Ironically, Tulane played in the Cure Bowl, which benefits the Breast Cancer Research Foundation
So far this season has been pretty good too. Tulane is 3-1 and receiving votes in the AP poll.
Calhoun has watched all four games – two on TV and two on the Internet. He and his wife have been wearing the Tulane T-shirts that the Montanos gave them as well as Tulane hats that they bought.
The Calhouns were watching intently on ESPN last week when the Green Wave beat Houston in a dramatic finish that would dominate the network’s highlights for the rest of the night.
The game appeared headed to overtime before Tulane drove 71 yards in two plays, scoring a winning touchdown on a 53-yard touchdown pass with three seconds left.
Calhoun said he started jumping up and down. His wife was just as excited, but couldn’t jump “because she’s got a bad back.”
“I was going nuts,” Calhoun said.
As special as that moment was, this week will be even more special.
Calhoun and his wife will climb in his Chevy truck that’s decorated with a bumper sticker reading Montano with Christian’s jersey number 58 and make the 2½-hour drive to West Point. Calhoun wanted to go to the season opener against Florida International at Yulman Stadium, but hadn’t yet been cleared by doctors to fly.
He has since been cleared and a trip to New Orleans for a game later in the season isn’t out of the question.
The Calhouns will have an entourage of a half dozen, including their two children, and the Montanos will have 30 or more in their entourage rooting for the Green Wave.
The Tulane team has planned quite a weekend for Calhoun, which will begin Friday when he visits the team hotel.
“Christian is going to be a captain,” Fritz said. “I hope they are going to let (Calhoun) come out on the field with us before the game. He is going to be there and eat the team meals with us.”
So Calhoun’s fight against cancer and Montano’s contribution will intersect at a Tulane-Army football game.
“If I had never played football at Brown, I never would have joined the registry,” Montano said. “When it all comes together it really feels like I was meant to be at Tulane.
“I was able to get a degree that I wanted to get, I was able to play Division I, FBS football, I just went down the list. It was awesome – a new city, a new cool place. It was a home run.”
Calhoun said he feels “great” and he’s on schedule to be declared cancer free if things continue as they have for about another year.
“Christian gave me a second chance at life and not many people can do that,” Calhoun said. “I have a brother for life and an extended family that has been very welcoming to my wife and I and my family.”
Montano said he and Calhoun “text every other day if not every day.”
“I think he’s the biggest Tulane fan in the world right now.”
Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…